A look behind the scenes at Shrek the Musical at Norwich’s Theatre Royal

Shrek the Musical.

Shrek the Musical. - Credit: Helen Maybanks

Backstage may be swamped with props, but despite the dozens of costume changes and constantly changing scenery, Shrek the Musical – now running at Norwich Theatre Royal – is a lean, green, well-oiled machine. Stacia Briggs went into the wings to find out how the magic happens.

Shrek company manager, Neil White, with Puss-In-Boots backstage at the Theatre Royal for Shrek the M

Shrek company manager, Neil White, with Puss-In-Boots backstage at the Theatre Royal for Shrek the Musical. - Credit: Copyright: Archant 2015

The choreography behind-the-scenes has to be as tight as that on stage – one misplaced nose and one of The Three Pigs could be snout of favour.

Neil White, company manager, makes the magic happen in the wings, ensuring that everything runs like clockwork during the two-hour show: which is no mean feat when you realise that there are four full-time wardrobe staff, 11 local dressers, four make-up artists, four wig tenders, two electricians and a carpenter to hide away.

'Back stage, it's like a Formula One pit stop,' explained Neil, 'Clothes come off, wigs come off, make-up comes off, clothes go on, wigs go on, make-up goes on – all in a couple of minutes. It's controlled pandemonium!'

There are 23 cast members in a crew of 70 on Shrek the Musical and the production levels are exactly the same as were seen at Drury Lane in London, where the show opened.

Backstage at the Theatre Royal for Shrek the Musical. Shrek's head and hands ready.

Backstage at the Theatre Royal for Shrek the Musical. Shrek's head and hands ready. - Credit: Copyright: Archant 2015

'There was no question of taking a pale imitation of the show on tour, we took the Drury Lane production so that people across the whole country get the proper theatre experience: it's easy to cut costs and corners, but it's the detail that makes it special,' said Neil.

'Every night, Dean [who plays Shrek] is in make-up for two-and-a-half hours and that make-up costs around £375. Every night the wigs, which are made of real hair, are washed and restyled.

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'If you look at any of the costumes, you'll see the incredible detail that has gone into them – people ask why we bother when it can hardly be seen by the audience, but that's why it's so magical. It encourages us to have that kind of attention to detail in everything that we do.

'There is a huge amount of time and money invested to make sure that wherever you are in the country, your experience of seeing Shrek the Musical will be as good as if you were on the West End.

'People want a big experience, and this is big: a big musical, a big set, a big crew, big sound, big effects, eight trailers to transport it across the country – the cast of 23 play 115 characters! That's big!'

Additionally, there are two local children in each venue (it takes 40 minutes for 'Baby Shrek' to be transformed in make-up to appear for two minutes on stage), an orchestra of 12 and the crew that keeps the show on stage and on the road.

'There are lots of challenges, but that's what makes a job like mine fun,' said Neil, who has worked on countless big productions and whose last trip to Norwich saw him bring Oliver! the musical to the city.

'For a start, you have to watch Dean like a hawk because if he has any problems and needs to come off, it takes at the very least about 45 minutes for his understudy to become a very slightly pared-down Shrek.'

Behind the scenes it resembles a fairytale scrapyard – there's the bridge that Donkey struggles to cross over the boiling swamp, Shrek's pet skunk that he uses as a deodorant, an inflatable deer, a gingerbread man with a mind of its own, a puppet Puss in Boots, spellbooks, Lord Farquaad's pearlised trusty steed, Shrek's swamp lair, Princess Fiona's lonely tower – it's a treasure trove in the wings.

Difficult to ignore, Lola the dragon looms above us, her pink and purple silk scales shimmering with jewels, the material stretched over an incredible 25ft skeleton.

It takes four members of the ensemble to work the gigantic puppet, one at the neck, one in the middle and one at the tail, and although she is beautiful, she is deadly, breathing fire and snorting smoke.

Next to the props is 'Wardrobe Village', a vast library of almost 300 outfits which have to be kept close to hand for the endless rounds of costume changes throughout the show.

There are four key moments in the show when Wardrobe Village becomes Piccadilly Circus as 16 members of the ensemble get changed in less than two minutes, transforming from pigs to guards, happy villagers to fairytale characters, princesses to ogres – it's quite dizzying.

Row upon row of costumes shimmer and sparkle in the light – from Lord Farquaad's diminutive outfits that cross the line between ruthless despot and camp crusader to Red Riding Hood's scarlet cape and the fat suits belonging to the three pigs complete with hooved shoes.

We move on to the various stations where the expert artists work on make-up, wigs and costumes and it looks very much like Frankenstein's laboratory, if Frankenstein had invented Shrek rather than a bolt-headed monster.

There are shelves of Shrek and Princess Fiona headpieces (a different prosthetic is used for each show, and between shows the used heads are washed and re-set), enough green make-up to cover the cast of Titanic in a seasick shade of puce, drawers of prosthetic hands, pig noses and ogre ears.

To transform Dean Chisnall into Shrek sees head make-up artist Craig Forrest fusing a silicone face made from a mould of Dean's own face to a head and shoulder one-piece.

'The face moves with Dean's face, so it looks realistic,' said Neil, 'sometimes I find myself having quite serious conversations with Dean and then I look up and I'm talking to an ogre. It's quite surreal.'

Neil said that the show added a new dimension to the Shrek film.

'People think it's a children's show, but it's far more than that. There are jokes that work at two levels, there are stories that work at two levels - and then there are fart jokes that frankly work at every level,' he said.

'There are amazing back stories to the characters that make you think and bring a whole new level to the film – you'll learn more about the wolf and the three pigs and even find out that Peter Pan is 34 and needs a shave.

'Grandparents, parents, children, teenagers, 20-somethings who were young when the film came out – they all love the show: I know it's a cliché to say that it has something for everyone, but… it has something for everyone.

'It's such a happy show to take around the country and that fact comes across on stage and off stage – we just have the loveliest cast and crew.

'What I love about Shrek is the story and the fun. Working with the cast and crew is amazing and Dean is great.

'You see this good-looking chap become an ogre every night and you realise that you're looking at the central message of Shrek right there.

'We know that under the latex and the make-up Dean is a handsome man, and that's Shrek, too. Inside the ogre is a good man with a good heart and we learn that beautiful isn't always pretty.'

• Shrek The Musical continues at Norwich Theatre Royal until June 28. • For more information, or to book tickets, call 01603 630000 or visit www.theatreroyalnorwich.co.uk

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